Robin Williams – an inquiry into Purpose and Meaning
This article is not about Robin Williams’ life and death. We may never know what he was thinking or feeling. This article is about what is possible for us to explore – hearing about such a successful, brilliant and well loved person taking his own life. Neither am I going to bore you with inane ‘truths’ but attempt to foster some openings to stimulate your own mind to explore and expand on.
“I would rather shape my soul than furnish it” Michel de Montaigne
Obviously the furnishings of life like money, career satisfaction, love, adoration, respect and fame are insufficient for all of us. What would it take to shape your soul (the non religious can substitute the word soul for ‘being’ or ‘purpose/meaning’)?
To answer that question, maybe we need to look at what could be the opposite of ‘shaping your soul’.
Where do we allow for our mindlessness?
Maybe the shaping of your soul involves mindfulness – an attention of a dedicated and patient craftsman intent on sharpening her skills in designing her life and future destiny?
I am talking about three specific areas (reference Ellen Langer – Author, Researcher, first women to be tenured at the Psychology Department at Harvard University):
- Being Open to New Information versus Old Information
- Being Open to Different Perspectives versus the Same Perspective
- Being a Category Creator versus The Automatic Adoption of what is dictated or exposed to you
More Oxygen on the Future than on the Past
Our brains have arguably evolved to predict the future e.g. if we follow the footprints of an animal, we can envision realistically eating meat in the future e.g. if we follow certain steps or milestones, we will be able to achieve what we want (relationships, survival, satisfaction, family stability, etc.)
Our brains are also immense and amazing connection machines. The brain ‘loves’ to make connections between some of the 100 billion neurons we each have.
To create a future that we want, more of the connections need to be made between different ideas, concepts, relationships and events – each of these are represented by different groupings of neurons in our head.
Doing things to prevent these connections to be made, impedes the creative functions we have to design the future that we want:
- Focusing on past issues (old information rather than new information) rather than on the question “What can we do to create the future we want?”
- Filling up our time with activities that do not foster or allow for reflection on what is deeply meaningful and relevant for the future we want
- Failing to spend time to examine and review assumptions and beliefs that create a dogmatic and unfruitful perspective leading to only certain actions and certain results
- Failing to create a context (e.g. mission statement) that guides your daily, weekly, monthly and yearly objectives and decisions; a context that you can refine frequently based on hard results and observations
There are more on this list – but this should begin to give you an idea of what challenges we face to really craft and shape our soul in our typical urban lifestyle.
Resisting the Automaticity – Creating Your Own Categories
There is a tendency for us to become automatons – where we automatically refer to old information rather than new and we refer to old perspectives rather than different and new ones.
We tend to categorize people, things, events and experiences into buckets – very natural and useful to a point. But after a point, these categories tend to limit us rather than beckon us to a new land of possibility.
What we fail to do in our schools is to train people from young to create their own ways to categorize their experiences. We fail to let kids generate skills in being New Category Creators – to consistently review their assumptions against current data to create a new way of categorizing or organizing conclusions and principles.
My intention in this article is to stimulate you to think more about the categories that you may have put yourself into –mesmerizing yourself into believing that these categories apply to everything in your life and in the lives of people around you.
How could your life be different if you committed to creating different categories relevant to forging a refreshing and worthwhile future for yourself?
Robin Williams was a great category creator – he constantly gave to us by exposing us to different information, new perspectives and new categories. The unfortunate point may be that he failed to do it adequately for himself.